As an actress, Courtenay Louise gets to play dress-ups every day and she's already walked down the aisle in a white frock twice on screen. So slipping into gowns ahead of her upcoming real-life wedding to fiancé Chris Read in April was nothing new – yet designer Trish Peng still made it an enchanting moment.
"I've been in two bridal dresses as an actor, but Trish turned it into a really magical experience," says Courtenay, who plays Monique Strutter on Shortland Street. "The first time I went, I had high tea with my mum and sister, which was so special. I got to try on Trish's beautiful dresses in her store. She's phenomenal – I told her my vision, she sketched it up and it's perfect."
Woman's Day was there as Courtenay went into her latest fitting in Auckland and while the 30-year-old actress will no doubt wow Chris when she walks down the aisle, it's how her fiancé makes her feel when she's not glammed up that she cherishes.
"I could be feeling ugly and sitting like a sloth on the couch, but he'll still say I'm beautiful, which means so much," grins Courtenay. "I don't ever feel like I have to wake up and put makeup on. I often leave the house looking questionable and feel my most beautiful because he makes me feel that way."
For his part, Chris, 32, says he admires Courtenay's "determination and the way she lights up a room". He explains, "She can run through brick walls and make everyone laugh along the way. I'm not sure how much of that I've picked up over the years, but certainly her bad jokes have rubbed off on me!"
The pair will tie the knot exactly one month before marking their 10-year anniversary, having met at now-closed Auckland bar Tyler Street Garage when Chris interviewed Courtenay for a bartending job.
"He was super-charming and kind," she recalls. "He offered me a trial, but I'd never worked in hospo and was terrible! Everyone was so knowledgeable, but I was 20 and all I drank was vodka cranberry! I learned quickly."
After Courtenay moved from waitressing to a front-of-house position, she was put on shifts with Chris and the two got to know each other better, sharing a butter chicken on their first date.
"He'd just graduated and was working at Tyler Street but didn't want to do that forever, while I was transitioning from modelling and wanted to become an actor," recalls Courtenay. "We bonded over both having bigger dreams to achieve."
Enjoying nights out and long beach walks, the two continued to hit it off. They were seven months into dating when Courtenay decided to pursue her acting dreams in Australia – and Chris was all for it.
"When we first met, I told him I wanted to be an actor and 99% of actors are unemployed, but he's always been so supportive," says Courtenay, who trained at Sydney Theatre School, then Howard Fine Acting Studio.
She still cringes recalling her first performance with Chris in the audience in Sydney, where she forgot her lines. "It was a really big deal because I wanted to show my life partner I could act, but my brain went blank and that was Chris' first impression of me acting. I was mortified. But he stuck around!"
Over the years, Chris, who's now CFO of nutrition company The Pure Food Co, was schooled in acting alongside Courtenay. She laughs, "He's like 'You've ruined watching movies for me!' We recently went to the new Hunger Games film and didn't feel a connection with any characters. Ten years ago, we would've been absorbed by the story, but now we're picky about continuity, direction or cameras."
Since returning to Aotearoa, where Courtenay has also appeared in My Life Is Murder, the couple's biggest challenge has been finding work-life balance amid their busy careers.
Courtenay tells, "I've had to ask my Shorty colleagues how they navigate relationships because we can be on set from 6.30am till 6.30pm, then we go home, kiss our partners, go upstairs and learn lines for hours. There are so many sacrifices, but Chris is so supportive. He's the kindest person, which you can see in how he treats his mum, sister and family. I'm a hothead with no time for bulls**t, but Chris is empathetic and understanding."
Blushing, her fiancé says simply, "Nothing worth doing is easy and we went into our relationship with eyes wide open about each other's ambitions. We've always given each other lots of space to chase professional goals and tried to focus on quality time together when we don't have a huge quantity of time. We also try to properly check in with each other in the evenings if it's been a long day."
Chris' support and selflessness are among the reasons she said yes when he proposed in Queenstown in 2020. With aching legs after skiing, Courtenay was hellbent on a hitting the hotel hot tub when Chris convinced her take to a stroll along Lake Wakatipu. Even when it started raining, he still insisted on the walk.
"I reached for his jacket and he grabbed it off me," recalls Courtenay. "Normally, he'd give me his jacket, so I thought, 'That's extremely interesting!' We sat down and I was waiting for whales to jump out of the lake painted with, 'Will you marry me?' and nothing happened, so I said, 'Let's go,' then he got down on one knee. It was very cute."
The nuptials will take place at Tu Ngutu Villa, a clifftop home in Mahurangi, just north of Auckland. The bride-to-be pulls out her tablet to show us her "white, classic, minimalist" wedding vision and dishes that her Shorty castmate Rebekah Randell is baking the cake.
The first among both her and Chris' siblings to wed, Courtenay says marriage is about partnership and "having someone who will have your back no matter what". She adds, "We both want children soon, so it's also about creating our own family and bringing our families together. I'm desperate to host a family Christmas! I'm also excited to call him my husband, experience the day, put the photos up around our home, then think about children and what's next."
Chris adds, "Hopefully our wedding day will be filled with love, laughter, family and friends – sunshine would be a bonus! Courtenay is doing the lion's share of planning, so I know it'll run smoothly. It feels like a real milestone and it'll be fun thinking about the next phase of our lives."
Courtenay is back at work on Shorty after spending Christmas in Tauranga with her family, then holidaying in Hawke's Bay with Chris and his whānau.
When it comes to her character's future on the soap, Courtenay teases, "Expect the unexpected. She's been through so many men. She's had four engagements. She needs to find power in herself and be a strong, independent woman – and keep climbing that corporate ladder!"
Shortland Street returns 7pm Monday on TVNZ 2.
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